Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The jury is out...

Many years ago, I had an opportunity to serve on a jury. I really do view it as an opportunity, too. I don't understand why so many people bitch and moan when a jury summons appears in their mailbox; for the average person, serving on a jury is the only chance we'll ever have to hold public office. Really, let's not forget that: Chances are about zero that you'll ever be President, probably less than 1% you'll serve as a lesser elected representative, but all you need to be part of the American judicial system is a mailing address.

Funny, while I was waiting to see whether I'd be called up for a jury, I found myself remembering Ned Roscoe. Ned Roscoe doesn't seem to have his own website or even Wikipedia entry, but he is a bit of a second- or third-rate California political celebrity. When I was in high school, Roscoe ran a chain of grocery store/gas stations known as Cheaper! stores. The prices were incredible, and there was some entertainment value in the Libertarian rants that Roscoe put on posters throughout his stores and on grocery bags. Roscoe later went on to shut down most if not all of these stores, and open a mega-chain of tobacco shops known as Cigarettes Cheaper! which I haven't seen lately, so they may have gone out of business. Roscoe was later one of several hundred failed candidates for Governor of California in 2003.

Why was I thinking about Roscoe? Well, one of his grocery-bag rants that I actually read all the way through (they would cover all five sides of the bag) was one entitled "Want to get out of jury duty? Bring this bag with you!" Upon that bag, he expounded at length about how the government doesn't really want you to know your rights as a juror. Though I'm not a Libertarian, a lot of my views about juries have been profoundly affected by what was on that bag, oddly enough. He pointed out that, as I said above, being on a jury made you a part of the government, and that our government, built as it with with those "checks and balances" that we love to talk about in civics class affords you incredible power as a juror. Those checks and balances aren't just for the President and the Supreme Court, but also for individual members of a jury! As juror, you have the right to disagree with the rest of the jury and hang the case, not only if you disagree on the facts, but if you even disagree on the moral basis of the law undergirding the matter. (It's funny, but I've always thought with all the fighting over the legality of abortion, the fact remains that you'd be hard-pressed to find twelve people picked at random out of the general populace that would be willing to put a woman in prison for having an abortion, regardless of the legal status. That's another matter, though.) Sitting in the jury selection room, I assured myself that if I were chosen to serve, I would have no problem hanging a jury if my conscience told me it was the right thing to do.

As it happens (and as I already said) I did end up on a jury that day. The case was actually largely unremarkable. A woman had been injured in an auto accident, and the defendant had already been found guilty; it was only our job to listen to the facts and decide what was the monetary value of the woman's suffering. How do you really put a price tag on suffering, though? This woman had gone through years of physical therapy, and various treatments by a variety of medical practitioners, but the lawyer arguing the defense made the case that the claims made by the plaintiff were frivolous, and had much more to do with her age than the after-effects of the accident. Indeed, the day of the accident she was X-rayed and it was found that no bones were broken, and the problems she had been having with her back since that day had to some extent been caused by osteoarthritis, if I remember correctly. She was claiming a problem with her foot that had developed several months after the accident was indirectly caused by the accident. It was all pretty strange, but she wanted money for time lost from work, pain and suffering, medical bills, and probably one or two other things I don't recall.

As the case ended, and we filed into the deliberation room, I was thinking, "Eh, this woman doesn't deserve squat. Her car was paid for, so at most, maybe a couple hundred for medical bills." Then something strange happened.

One of the older members of the jury (I think I may have been the youngest) was the first to speak up after the door closed. He actually said more or less what I was thinking. "This lady's nuts; we shouldn't give her anything!" Everyone sat down, nodded, and the murmured general consensus was that this would be a pretty quick deliberation.

And I lost it.

Somehow, I just couldn't let it sit at that, even though I largely agreed. "Look, the stuff about her foot's pretty ridiculous, but nobody is disputing the fact that she was hurt, right? Shouldn't she at least get some portion of her medical bills paid and a tad for pain and suffering?" Before I knew it, we were all in agreement that she deserved some sort of settlement.

I don't consider myself a strong personality. I'm not a leader by any means, and I wasn't elected jury foreman. Nonetheless, in the course of the next couple hours, I had the distinct mental feeling of holding the reins of a team of eleven horses and guiding them wherever I wanted them to go. My initial misgivings about holding silent in case there were others who had a dissenting opinion that they were unwilling to voice in the face of opposition gave way to a new misgiving. Was this a group of twelve people who simply would make the decision that aligned with the loudest voice in the room? When the deliberation was done, the plaintiff was awarded a few thousand dollars, but I kept having the feeling that every dollar she got was hung on my own words to my fellow jurors, who, whatever they may have felt about the case in reality, were far more interested in agreeing with my vocal majority of one and getting out of there.

Did I imagine it or was it real? If it was real, which I strongly suspect, does it say something about our attitude towards jury duty, or about our tendency towards a herd mentality in general? Personally, I don't like to think of the implications of either possibility. I fear often that people either don't think for themselves, or they simply don't care to think about anything beyond personal convenience. Like I said, I'm not a strong personality or a natural leader; what happens to our society when someone who is stands up and steers us towards their own personal ends?


marauder said...

I probably would have done the same thing, just because I would feel it wrong for everyone to settle the case that quickly without even discussing it a little.

Reminds me of "Twelve Angry Men," where the one juror swings everyone around to a verdict of Not Guilty, when they had all been set at the start of the play to vote Guilty. Of course, in that play (or movie, with Henry Fonda) the message is that justice is done through the jury process. Your message here is that the Rule of Law is suspect, and a jury decision is tainted by the will of whoever speaks the loudest.

Brucker said...

Personally, I think the jury system is a good idea, but there are clearly flaws, and they are within ourselves. It's a good idea to have legal matters resolved by a small group of one's peers, but I wonder how many people really take it seriously and truly think about it.

Now, I realize it's not a jury, but I have in the past seen TV news magazines that do a segment on a murder case or what have you, and during the broadcast, they have phone lines open to call and vote whether you think the person accused of the crime is guilty or not, and the running total is displayed on the screen. I'm always amazed at how many people are willing to call in very early in the show and give a verdict without hearing the whole story.

marauder said...

Oh I wholeheartedly agree with the notion of a trial by a juror of one's peers. It was just interesting to note the contrast in your depiction of serving on a jury, versus the dramatic depictions. The latter is meant to assure viewers that justice is upheld, while I think your post to a degree sends a different message, namely that justice is uncertain.

It's like the parallel successes of TV shows like Cold Case and CSI, which project our belief in the rule of law, and "Dexter," which popularity suggests that we don't entirely believe in the Rule of Law, but would like to believe in the Rule of Justice.